Mr. Christmas made lifelong memories

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 20, 2009

NATCHEZ — When Lanus Hammack meets someone new, he has a special way of introducing himself.

“I ask them if they remember the old Christmas decorations at IP,” Hammack said. “When they say ‘Yes,’ I tell them I was the person who designed them.

“People may not know me, but they knew and loved the decorations.”

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Hammack, 87, was the chief designer of the Christmas scenes and shadow boxes that turned International Paper from an industrial site to a show stopping winter wonderland during the holiday season for decades.

During his time designing, building and painting the life-size figures and oversized shadow boxes, Hammack became known as Mr. Christmas to many of his co-workers at IP and also to the crowds of families that made the trip — many returning multiple times each year — to see the spectacle.

But Hammack never did it for the recognition.

He, instead, drew his enjoyment from watching the cars slowly circle the mill site and seeing the faces of children light up as they saw Santa and his elves working in the workshop or watching parents explain the birth of Jesus to children as they drove past the sacred scene placed near the entrance to the mill site.

“For so many years people looked forward to (the opening of the display),” Hammack said. “For some families, Christmas wasn’t complete without a trip to see the decorations at IP.”

Burnley Cook of Natchez, who was integral in designing several of the Christmas shadowboxes now on the Vidalia Riverfront, said a few of the ones on display are exact replicas of shadowboxes designed by Hammack.

Cook, who’s father worked at IP, said he remembers fondly waiting in lines of traffic for trips through the IP decorations.

“They never put it up before Thanksgiving, and really it was closer to Dec. 10 before it was open,” Cook said. “But in just a few weeks time, there would be 50,000 people go through that display.

“That is just remarkable.”

Hammack was not the original designer of the project, but it was with him at the helm that the Christmas display really took off.

Christmas decorations began being displayed at IP shortly after the mill opened in 1950. At that time Hammack was working at the Bluebell garment factory.

Hammack noticed the crowds that were enjoying the IP decorations, and thought it would be a good idea for Bluebell to do something similar.

“The next year, I went to my manager at Bluebell and said, ‘I can do that stuff they are doing over at IP,’” Hammack said. “I thought we needed to give them a little competition.”

In the first year at Bluebell, Hammack designed and built the scenes from the Nativity, including a life-sized portrayal of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, shepherds and the Wise Men making the trip from the East.

“See, I know the real meaning for Christmas,” Hammack said. “If I was going to do something like this, the birth of Jesus Christ was going to be depicted as well.”

The next year at Bluebell, Hammack wanted to do something that was sure to be a show stopper. He designed a lighted 200-foot long Santa Claus in his sleigh and a team of reindeer that ran across the top of the Bluebell factory on a track.

“When it got to the end, it was rigged so that a switch was flipped and the lights went out while the sleigh backed up,” Hammack said. “When it got to the end, another switch was flipped and the lights came back on.

“No one ever saw it backing up. They just saw the reindeer galloping.”

When Bluebell closed shortly thereafter, Hammack went to work for IP and almost immediately began working to transform their Christmas decorations. Hammack recalled being asked to join a team to work on the display his first year at IP.

“I walked into the meeting, and everyone was looking at me,” he said. “They told me if I’d design the displays, they’d provide me with everything I needed to get it together.”

In Cook’s opinion, putting Hammack in charge of the design was the best decision.

“When Lanus took over, that’s when the quality really went up,” he said. “You could see the amount of time and detail he put into the displays.”

Hammack said IP was willing to go to any expense to continue the Christmas tradition that had caught on so well. He said “it was just good public relations to continue the displays.”

“IP created quite a stink when they moved into Natchez,” he said with a chuckle. “Anyone who has ever lived near a paper mill knows that.”

So to smooth ruffled feathers, Hammack was given access to skilled carpenters, electricians and painters to make the Christmas come alive with moving parts, music and imagination.

The display covered a circle around the mill site and began with the religious section that depicted the birth of Jesus and later included other displays showing how Christianity had spread through the world. That particular display was one of Hammack’s favorites.

“I designed a large globe and coming out from that were people from all the nations dressed in their traditional clothes,” Hammack said. “That scene was call ‘World peace by recognition of the Messiah.’

“I was real proud of that one because of the message.”

The next set of displays were the traditional Christmas scenes patterned after famous Currier-and-Ives Christmas scenes.

The final section included the Santa-themed decorations. Hammack said this area was a favorite among children and provided him with a lot of inspiration over the years.

“We had Santa doing all sorts of things from year-to-year,” Hammack said. “He was all over the place.”

Cook remembered one year when the entire story from “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was displayed at IP. Cook said the display was only up for one or two years, but he remembers how impressive it was.

“The words to the story were printed on each scene,” Cook said. “They didn’t put that one up for long because it slowed traffic down to a crawl because everyone was reading the story.”

The original IP decorations were placed each year from the early 1950s until the mid-1970s when a national energy crisis caused them to be shut down.

Hammack said the first year without the IP decorations was a hard one for him and for the people who had grown accustomed to spending at least one evening waiting in line to see the scenes.

“We’d have lines of bumper-to-bumper traffic for a mile down the road,” he said. “We’d open at 5 p.m. and close at 11 p.m. and the traffic was backed up that entire time.

“There were a lot of disappointed people that first year without them. Some said Christmas wasn’t the same without seeing IP decorated.”

Cook said after the decorations were taken down at IP they changed hands several times. An effort was made to have local civic clubs sponsor the decorations and place them at Duncan Park and in various other areas around town.

Cook restored a few of the original decorations to be displayed at Tracetown Shopping Center in 1984 and constructed replicas to be displayed at Natchez Mall for a few years.

Efforts to display them were largely unsuccessful because the large scenes were hard to store. For many years, the decorations were stored outdoors and exposed to harsh weather.

“The early ones, sadly, they are pretty much gone,” Cook said.

The site stayed undecorated for about 10 years when a new plant manager started hearing stories of Christmases past and contacted a then-retired Hammack about designing and building some more displays.

“What had happened then was a lot of folks who had grown up going to the display were working at IP and they wanted to bring them back,” Hammack said. “It was a big deal to the community to have them back up and lit.”

The second set of decorations was built exclusively by Hammack in a workshop behind his house in Adams County. When the decorations were finished, IP would send crews to Hammack’s house to transport them to the mill. After the Christmas season was over, the displays were returned to Hammack and stored on his property.

“I always looked forward to doing it because it made me and so many other people happy,” Hammack said.

When Cook began constructing scenes to be displayed at the Vidalia Riverfront, he consulted Hammack many times to make sure he was “doing it right.”

Cook said after doing much research he decided it was time for Hammack to see the work he had done.

“The whole time we were out there he just smiled and nodded,” Cook said. “On the way back to his house he said, ‘Son, if I was just a little younger, I’d be over there with my paintbrush helping you.’”

Some of the decoration have been stored by the city in recent years, and this year Natchez resident Mike Lomasney volunteered to restore a few of the displays. His work is currently on display on the bluff.